LIHUE — President Obama recently personally asked U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz to vote in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
And Hawaii’s senior senator said no.
What was that like, to tell the president of the United States that you can’t help when he asks for your support?
“It’s not my favorite part of the job,” Schatz laughed.
But the Democrat and longtime Obama supporter explained his reasoning for opposing the administration on this issue. The way Schatz sees it, the proposed trade agreement between several Pacific Rim countries would unreasonably tie the nation’s hands because of a provision known as the “investor-state dispute settlement” that Schatz said allows foreign companies to sue for damages if the laws of a treaty-member country hurts the company’s economic interests.
He said that tobacco company Phillip Morris in particular has been using this tactic to scare countries from passing anti-smoking legislation.
Schatz shared his thoughts on this and other topics he is working on in Washington, D.C. during a wide-ranging discussion with the Lihue Business Association Thursday morning, and he also sat down for an interview with The Garden Island.
Iran nuclear deal
Congress is sharply divided on whether to support the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, with majority Republicans and some Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer opposing the deal. Schatz voiced his support for the plan, and warned what will happen if it is not approved.
“The international coalition (that is currently keeping economic sanctions in place) would disintegrate, and the United States would be isolated. And I think most folks who are in this space recognize that’s not just the likely outcome, it would be the certain outcome.”
Schatz acknowledged the plan is not perfect: “The sanctions were put together by Congress… for the express purpose to get Iran to negotiate on their nuclear program. It wasn’t to get them to stop doing bad things in the region, it wasn’t to change the regime — it was specifically to get a deal. So now we have one.”
“I think what gives some people heartburn is that Iran is our geopolitical adversary in the region,” Schatz continued. “My view of that is – well that’s true. The questions is – do you want one of your adversaries to have nuclear ability or not? And I don’t think that’s a hard call to make.”
Cyber espionage and warfare
Schatz said that Congress is preparing to act on legislation that would give the country tools to better protect against cyber espionage and warfare.
“We have a bill which is almost ready. There are going to be hardliners who are not strong on 4th Amendment protections (against unreasonable search and seizure) and think that this doesn’t give the tools to the national security establishment that it needs, and others who essentially believe that the security agencies have gone too far and need to be pared back, but I think this emerging draft is beginning to strike the right balance.”
Schatz said that he still has a few reservations that he is trying to work out, but that he thinks there is a good chance Congress will act on the cybersecurity bill this fall.
Progress expected on highway funding
Another topic that is a source of much discussion in D.C. is whether Congress is finally going to pass a new highway funding bill, after passing temporary budgets for the past several years.
What are the odds of passing a comprehensive bill, instead of another temporary patch?
“I think pretty high, actually,” said Schatz, who noted that there was a vote in the Senate with a healthy margin of support, and Speaker Boehner in the House wants to see a highway bill approved.
“We are going to have to work together to make this happen,” Schatz said.
Schatz said that he also worked with Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr.’s administration to submit a TIGER grant for road funding for the Lihue area. Anthony Foxx’s ears must have been burning. The U.S. transportation secretary called Schatz on his cellphone during his interview with The Garden Island to discuss Kauai’s TIGER grant. Schatz said that he did not know at this point whether the application would be approved.
Schatz is on record as supporting former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for president. But with Vice President Joe Biden now considering getting into the race and challenging Clinton for the democratic nomination, TGI asked Schatz, who backed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 election, if he was reconsidering his support. Schatz said he is sticking by his choice.
“I made my endorsement with the understanding that people jump into races all the time. So it’s not a conditional or contingent endorsement. I think she would be the best president.”
Schatz added that he believes former Maryland Gov. O’Malley was, “an excellent governor” and that Bernie Sanders is a friend – “I’m closer with Bernie on a personal and professional level than I am with Secretary Clinton,” – but, “I just think Secretary Clinton is the right person to be president at this time.”
Sometimes it is useful to know who an elected official admires on the other side of the aisle. Asked if a Republican were to win the general election, who would Schatz want that to be?
South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham.
“I personally like him. I think he cares deeply about the country. He’s rational when it comes to budget issues and he’s actually quite brave when it comes to climate.”
Bringing more hi-tech jobs to Kauai
Schatz said that in order to help bring more high-tech jobs to Kauai, he is focused on increasing federal funding for rural broadband. All of the Neighbor Islands qualify as rural broadband areas. But right now, the program in charge of those funds, “has had some challenges in terms of its efficacy,” Schatz said.
He also supports the FCC’s spectrum auction.
“That is really what drives private sector infrastructure investment in broadband. So we’re trying to get them to hurry.”
Support for Thirty Meter Telescope
Schatz did not mince words when asked about his thoughts on construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the protests that have spread to the solar observatory being built on top of Haleakala on Maui.
“I don’t doubt the sincerity or the validity of the views of those who are on the mountain,” Schatz said. But, “My view is that it’s really important for the rule of law to carry the day.
“I think that if a project is permitted, then you can’t prevent them from doing it because you didn’t like the outcome.”
Hit me with your best, Schatz
Just to know a little bit more about Hawaii’s senator as a person, TGI asked Schatz what is the best thing to do on Kauai in terms of a fun activity. He responded that he has hiked the Kalalau Trail all the way to the valley a couple of times, and on his 40th birthday when he was still lieutenant governor he kayaked the Napali Coast and landed to camp overnight.
Schatz noted that he did have a proper permit.